Reviewing In The Company Of Men

Posted by admin on July 15, 2014 in Uncategorized |

cpothmProduced by Mark Archer and Stephen Pevner; written and directed by Neil LaBute; cinematography by Tony Hettinger; edited by Joel Plotch; music by Ken Williams and Karel Roessingn; starring Aaron Eckhart, Stacy Edwards, Matt Malloy and Michael Martin. Color, 93 mins. A Sony Pictures Classics release.

If Neil LaBute were playing poker, someone would want to shoot him. His debut film, in the Company of Men, announces itself as a cutthroat round of stud poker involving two seasoned players and a mark. As the cards are laid it becomes apparent that the dealer is holding a pat hand. Even worse, just before the final bets, the rules change to include wild cards. What begins as a high-stakes game of sexual chance is on closer inspection little more than a (phallic) shell game whose slick gestures hide an elusive thematic pea.

Opening at the tail end of summer’s commercial sludgefest, Company was almost universally hailed as a tough, darkly-etched social satire on empty suits behaving badly for fun and profit. According to the director, the story is a simple case of “boys meet girl, boys crush girl, boys giggle.” Allowing for a certain amount of poetic license – only one boy giggles; the girl does not seem crushed – LaBute’s encapsulation sounds like a screwball comedy gone sour, a post-feminist battle of the sexes in which the side with all the weapons gets skewered.

What transpires is at once more ambitious and less clearly motivated. Two former college buddies perched on the same generic corporate ladder are sent for six weeks to a branch office in a nameless heartland city in order to oversee some vague data installation and training program. Chad (Aaron Eckhart) and Howard (Matt Malloy) are a typical odd couple: the former is brash, deadly handsome, and verbally adept; the latter is a diminutive nerd replete with glasses, receding hairline, and a bad case of the mumbles. What binds them psychologically are deep-seated grievances against women, what they view as the power to manipulate and humiliate them in romantic relationships. They agree that things are getting out of balance and that there’s going to be hell to pay down the line.

Although they decry the absurdity of not being able to tell lewd jokes at work, the gender competition they imagine is primarily sexual, not economic; strangely, the only women evident in the corporate structure are typists. During a long night of drinking and venting en route to their new assignment, Chad coerces Howard into a scheme in which they will target and mutually seduce a woman from the local office, someone so physically disadvantaged and undesirable that she doubts the possibility of romance. Then they will dump her and laugh about it, Chad explains, “until we are very old men.”

They settle on Christine (Stacy Edwards), a clerical temp who is deal lives with her mother, and speaks with a halting nasal drone. The object in this game of payback is to maintain perfect control, a constant theme as well as emblem of the film’s visual design. As Fate or narrative convention would have it, Howard, and possibly Chad, become emotionally involved, forcing them into same-sex competition and eventual betrayal. By the end, Howard is completely undone, a physical wreck who has been demoted to customer relations and reduced to pitiful groveling in front of an unresponsive Christine.

In what the film passes off as biting irony, it is learned that Chad’s account of his mistreatment by a lover is all a hoax. The suggestion is that, despite an overarching viciousness and anger directed at the social order in general, Chad’s ulterior motive in concocting the seduction scheme has been status envy, the subversion of Howard’s superior position in the corporate hierarchy. In other words, the manipulation of sexual power has served as a cloak for intrafraternal warfare: boys hit on girl, boys fuck each other up, boys exchange job descriptions.

Unfortunately for the narrative logic, the rivalry over who will bed Christine is itself a hoax. Howard is presented as needy, cuddly, and awkwardly sincere, a mixture of Woody and Dilbert. Chad is a tad chilly yet, given that both he and Christine look as though they have stepped off the pages of Vogue, there is scarcely a moment’s doubt as to which guy will get the nod; indeed, the only mystery is why Christine is not the object of more romantic attention. For a while at least, Company sticks to its guns, maintaining a strict perspectival focus on the men (although always slightly favoring Chad as mediator of knowledge). In the body of the film, scenes shift between the two men alone and their various romantic encounters with Christine. She is given no independent life and her feelings about her sudden popularity remain a cipher. There is an admirable rigor involved in the decision to cordon off the victim’s subjectivity.

It then becomes all the more shocking, and inexcusable, when the rules of engagement are broken. In the second of two climactic scenes, Chad admits to Christine that Howard’s revelation of the pact between the suitors is true. After Chad departs, the camera lingers on a two-minute overhead closeup of Christine’s silent agony, the most blatantly mawkish and invasive shot in the entire movie (Oh, did I mention that one-eyed jacks are wild?). The same formal misprision is repeated, and amplified, in the final scene as, weeks later, Howard comes barging into a cavernous bank where Christine is now temping. As he entreats her to give him another chance, his voice is abruptly deleted from the soundtrack, making us privy not only to Christine’s optical but also her auditory perspective.

These calculated lapses in the film’s stylistic program would perhaps feel less damaging were it not for the insistent emphasis on hard-edged, almost clinical disengagement from contact with the characters’ inner lives, a method LaBute refers to as minimalism. The majority of scenes unfold in long-take, fixed-camera, frontal compositions-many from unnaturally high or low angles – which display the two predators like insects in a museum exhibit. The physical environment they inhabit parallels the impersonal, functionless work they presumably perform: not quite colorless but antiseptic surfaces, a series of compartmentalized spaces in which the exercise of gratuitous insult is muffled by an aura of synthetic uniformity (a design stunningly realized by cinematographer Tony Hettinger). The effect is reminiscent of Kubrick’s visions of male technocracy, a comparison heightened by two scenes of male intimacy staged in the executive bathroom – think of The Shining or Full Metal Jacket.

Further, a dynamic tension between aggression and compartmentalization is established by a clipped cadence of six discrete sequences or chapters corresponding to the progression of weeks, bracketed by a prologue and epilogue. Paradoxically, the degree of distance and control inscribed in the image eventually registers as a mirror for the consciousness of control-freak Chad. In this sense, not only is Company’s narrative economy weighted towards Chad’s willful deceptions, its visual patterning corresponds to Chad’s buffed, meticulous demeanor.

Since Howard never has a fighting chance, and Chad is virtually Jack the Ripper in Brooks Brothers garb, it is hard to understand what critics found so controversial, incendiary, or instructive about Company’s discourse on misogyny. Rather than being implicated in the attitudes or behaviors of the schematic seducers, the male viewer can shrug off any stigma of identification by simply dismissing the characters as either patently pathetic or borderline psychopathic. If there is a need to articulate the relationship between masculine self-definition and the wielding of sexual power within the workplace, that goal is surely not achieved by creating characters so exaggerated that any possible defense of their actions becomes moot.

Company does contain one truly incendiary scene, but like much else in the film it turns out to be a red herring. In a private conference, Chad interrogates an African-American intern about a minor infraction, dangling the possibility of corporate advancement if he has the balls. When the intern responds affirmatively, Chad demands to see if they are literally big enough, and after some hesitation – and assurance from Chad that he is no homo – the poor guy obliges. Are we to conclude that Chad’s sexism is integrally linked with racism? That his competition with Howard is actually grounded in inchoate homoerotic attraction? The film pursues neither question; instead, they are merely tantalizing diversions, like the grand flourish of a card sharp as he slides one off the bottom of the deck.

A frequent connection has been made between LaBute’s film and the work of David Mamet, an insight that seems dead-on, if not in the way it was intended. At both his best and his worst, Mamet is a practitioner of what might be called the slippery allegory, in which individual characters are invested with abstract social or psychological or moral attributes. In traditional – as opposed to postmodern – literary allegories such as Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, a character who stands for, say, Christian virtue will encounter a series of figures and situations that will test and ultimately define the ideal nature of the abstract concept. In Mamet’s plays and films, there is often the veneer of a hidden parable, some ethical lesson to be derived which remains just hazy enough to allow for conflicting interpretations. The dehumanizing, degrading but also possibly redemptive rituals of persuasion enacted in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) is a useful example. When the social issue at stake is defined too narrowly or clumsily, and the deck of allegorical traits is stacked from the beginning, as in the egregious fakery of Oleanna’s (1994) gender struggle, the house of cardboard figures collapses under its own weight.

Something similar occurs in Company. It is never clear whether the trope of corporate competition as directed by Chad is a displacement for or a generative model of male heterosexual rage. Are these two behavioral trajectories being equated, paralleled, or situated in a causal chain (i.e., the frustrations of mindless, alienated labor produce sexual predation; or alternatively, the inability to find romantic completion leads to cutthroat business tactics)? The deaf typist whose limited powers of speech prohibit dissimulation, the nameless computer application of a nameless corporation located in a nameless city, all conspire to place the drama of In the Company of Men in a suprarealistic realm. Chad and Howard are not to be taken literally, as real people, but as exemplars of…what? The film can never quite decide; there is something up its sleeve and the suspicion is that it is nothing more, or less, than the long arm of patriarchy.


Charles Burnett: A True Master

Posted by admin on June 16, 2014 in Uncategorized |

cbMaybe it’s just part of being a successful artist: you’re proud of the work that made your reputation, but, being an artist, you want to put it behind you and move on to something new. Trouble is, your fans don’t want to let you. If you’re Sting, they sit in the back of the concert hall year after year and holier, “Roxanne!” If you’re Woody Allen, they buy tickets for each new film hoping it will be a remake of Annie Hall.

As frustrating as that kind of response must be for an artist, it could be forgiven in the case of the filmmaker Charles Burnett, whose early movies Killer of Sheep (1973) and My Brother’s Wedding (1983), share a subtlety largely missing in much of his more recent work. Sheep and Wedding managed the not inconsiderable feat of showing black families and communities with their uniqueness intact, and yet not allowing that uniqueness to devolve into the kind of stereotype that overshadows character. The people in those films and in Burnett’s masterpiece, To Sleep with Anger (1990), come across as black and human, not necessarily in that order. (This is all the more amazing in the case of the first two films – and is a testament to Burnett’s skill as a director – since the budgets for Sheep and Wedding did not even allow for professional actors.)

In Killer of Sheep, set in an impoverished neighborhood in South-Central Los Angeles, the main character is Stan, played by Henry Gayle Saunders. In the daytime Stan works in a slaughterhouse, surrounded by sheep, poor creatures neither responsible. for nor aware of the hideousness of their surroundings; nights and weekends, he hangs out with their human counterparts, friends and acquaintances too busy struggling to reflect on why they must struggle so. But Stan reflects; at least he has plenty of time to, since his frustration with the monotony and dreariness of his life has – in addition to making him emotionally distant from his wife and two children – turned him into an insomniac. (The film’s joke is that in the daytime Stan kills sheep, and at night he counts them.)

Killer of Sheep is virtually plotless, which bothered some reviewers upon its release but which actually goes along with the sleeping/waking theme. Stan’s true problem is not that he can’t get to sleep but that he seems to be in one long, tiresome dream from which he can’t rouse himself; episodes in the film, as in a dream, don’t conclude so much as blend into different episodes. In some Stan is a participant, in some an observer, in some not present at all. What ties them all together is the meanness of the characters’ lives, whether they are in the middle of a domestic dispute, on their way to put money on a horse, or in the process of cooking up a shady deal.

It is a blessing, given the period in which this film was made, that the idea for it did not enter the mind of a blaxploitation-film director (one of the creators of Hell Up in Harlem, Across 110th Street, and all the rest). If it had, Stan would surely get together with a couple of equally disgruntled buddies, buy some Saturday Night Specials, and take what was rightfully his from The Man. As it is, Stan has his temptations. A couple of thugs want him to go in on a job; a female liquor-store owner, not particularly attractive but certainly available, comes on to him. What makes Stan interesting and admirable is that, in an environment where decency is barely noticed, let alone rewarded, he passes up these little diversions.

And what saves Killer of Sheep from being a condescending, bleeding-heart little message of a movie (“Look at how these poor black people have to live! Isn’t it AWFUL?”) is Stan’s persistence, for all his moodiness, in finding small, simple things to appreciate. Sometimes even this backfires. Having coffee with a friend, he holds his mug to his cheek and says, “This remind you of anything?” After putting the mug to his own face, the friend says, “Nothing.” Stan then explains, in a wistful tone, that the heat on his cheek makes him think of the hot forehead of a woman with whom he is making love. “I don’t go for women with malaria,” the friend says, then proceeds to laugh derisively.

Sometimes, though, the little pleasures come through. When Stan’s young daughter looks out the door of their house at a sudden downpour and asks, “What makes it rain, Daddy?,” Stan answers, “The Devil’s beating his wife.” They both smile at this black southernism, a saying used when the sun shines during a rainstorm – a lovely event in the midst of dreariness, one that should be savored while it lasts. It is a moment that perfectly captures the spirit of Killer of Sheep, a small, quiet gem of a movie.

My Brother’s Wedding focuses on Pierce (Everett Silas), a thirty-something man who lives with his parents and works in their dry-cleaning store while he tries to ‘find’ himself. His parents (like Burnett’s) have southern origins and values, which include a strong work ethic. Pierce is both scornful and a little jealous of his brother and sister-in-law for their career success. My Brother’s Wedding deftly explores the irony of the generation gap as it applies to black people: while southernness (whether in cuisine, speech, or attitude) has traditionally been associated with blackness, the work ethic that goes with it is seen as Uncle Tom-ism by many younger blacks, who scoff at their peers’ attempts to make it in the ‘white’ world – and who assume that any black who does succeed has sold out. If, as the saying goes, there is a crime behind every great fortune, then in the view of black people like Pierce, there is a lack of integrity behind every successful African-American. Like Killer of Sheep, Wedding is subtly evocative of a particular aspect of black life, and it has something Sheep doesn’t have – an immediate conflict. When Pierce’s best friend is released from prison, Pierce is forced to choose, finally, between his upright family and his friend’s criminal ways.

While Wedding has a more identifiable conflict and a firmer grounding in black southern culture than Sheep, with To Sleep with Anger Burnett again outdid himself on both fronts, while making progress on a third – the enlistment of professional actors. To Sleep with Anger is the story of Suzie (Mary Alice) and Gideon (Paul Butler), a middle-class couple getting on in years. They have raised their grown sons (Carl Lumbly and Richard Brooks) in California, but they themselves are unaltered products of the South where they grew up. So deeply ingrained are their old traditions that Gideon confides to Suzie early in the film that he has misplaced his Toby, or personal good-luck piece. Coincidentally – or maybe not – the disappearance of the Toby is followed shortly by the appearance of Harry (Danny Glover), an acquaintance from Suzie and Gideon’s youth, who has come for a visit of indefinite length. Here begin the troubles.

To Sleep with Anger is a marvel of characterization and subtlety. Early on, Gideon tells a story to his young grandson, and at its conclusion the boy asks for another. “You tell me a story,” Gideon responds. The boy starts out, “Once upon a time…” and is cut short by the sound of the doorbell and Harry’s arrival. Touches like this can slip easily past the viewer, who understands them only in retrospect; the same relationship exists between Harry’s actions and Suzie, Gideon, and their family. Danny Glover’s Harry is a human version of Southern Comfort – he’s smooth and sweet, he puts you in a good mood, and Lord help you once the mood has passed. His manipulations come close to tearing the family apart.

So smooth is Harry – and so understated is this film – that the viewer who misses some key bits of dialog may miss altogether Harry’s purpose. But at one point, when Harry waxes personal to Suzie and then cannot resist pulling out a snapshot of his dead sons, he tips his hand: he has come to take away one of Suzie’s sons to replace his own. As it happens, one of them is ripe for the taking. The younger son, played by Richard Brooks, is a study in discontent. On the one hand, he bristles at the responsibilities that come with marriage and fatherhood; on the other, he resents the family in which he, as a grown man still called Babe Brother and even “boy,” is not always treated as an adult. Babe Brother’s every gesture is tinged with unhappiness, none more so than his smile, which serves only to put the grim cast of the rest of his features in relief. Babe Brother’s unhappiness and Harry’s exploitation of it are the building blocks for a fascinating, tension-filled story.

Adding nuance is Burnett’s visual style. This does not seem at first to be the case: with the exception of one sequence, for which the filmmaker is indebted to The Godfather (shots of a baptism are intercut with shots of Harry entering devious mode), To Sleep with Anger is typical Burnett, in that the shots are very straightforward. But they are, in fact, emphatically so, as if to underscore the difference between what you see and what you get: while the camera looks straight at Harry, Harry is anything but straight, answering with a riddle every question put to him. Here, visually speaking, Burnett goes the simplicity of, say, Killer of Sheep one better. The camera looks four-square at everything and everyone, as if setting up still photographs. For that matter, the camera, when not focusing on actual family photos, puts every character in a frame of a different sort – be it a doorway, a car window, the window of a house, the branches of a tree, or a shock of white hair. Everyone is made to look ready to be photographed, prepared for public viewing. Tension is thus created between appearance and reality. visually as well as thematically, To Sleep with Anger is a powerful piece of filmmaking.

Unfortunately, it was also a box-office disappointment. If Burnett felt frustrated by that, then perhaps – understandably – he set out to snare with his next film a wider audience than his critically acclaimed but ill-attended earlier movies had drawn. Or maybe he had another aim. “There’s something unique about different peoples and what they’ve experienced,” Burnett told The Christian Science Monitor in 1990. “The thing is to not reduce it, not trivialize it, but show what it is, and show its universality.” To be sure, Burnett’s first three films had achieved this goal as far as black people were concerned. He had shown, for those who didn’t already know it, that black people do indeed have something unique – a culture, in other words. He had shown many blacks’ rootedness in southern ways, and laced his films with jazz and blues tunes. Particularly in the case of Killer of Sheep, he had shed light on the tendency of blacks, as an oppressed people, to snatch joy from desperate situations – to improvise, a skill at the heart of jazz and blues, the music created by blacks. But maybe, after To Sleep with Anger, Burnett felt that this approach had run its course – that he had taken subtlety and understatement as far as he could, that it was time to make statements about black people, and race in general, in bolder terms.

Either reason, or both together, could logically have been behind Burnett’s 1995 film, The Glass Shield. This is a story about the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s office. But it is also a Charles Burnett film, and so the standard equipment of Hollywood cop movies – gore, steamy sex, high-speed chases, and more gore – are refreshingly absent. What takes their place is a statement about institutionalized corruption and racism and the need to maintain one’s integrity in the face of them. It is a statement that, while not novel, is well worth making, as it never hurts to be reminded of these things. As for making the statement in the form of a movie, that is not necessarily a bad thing, either. Drama and political message can dance well together, provided drama leads. Here, it struggles in vain to keep up.

Shield’s central character is J.J. Johnson (Michael Boatman), a wet-behind-the-ears graduate of the Sheriffs Academy and the first black deputy to join the Sheriffs office. When he pulls into the parking lot on the morning of his first day, not yet wearing his uniform, another deputy tells him that the space he’s pulled into is for employees only. Flashing his badge and a smile, J.J. says, “I am an employee.” The look on the white deputy’s face is one of alarm. The viewer sees this, but J.J. doesn’t – he has already rounded the corner and is off to begin his career of defending the citizenry. And so it goes: while the bright-eyed J.J. dreams of one day having the precinct named after him, signs of prejudice and worse proliferate around him. Before long J.J. is sucked into it. A racist white deputy stops a driver simply because he is black and behind the wheel of a nice car; J.J., as the deputy’s backup, finds a gun in the driver’s glove compartment; the gun is soon linked, rather conveniently, to a recent killing.

Later, as the driver faces a murder charge, J.J. perjures himself by saying that the driver was stopped for a legitimate reason, because of an illegal turn. He tells this lie for what he believes is the greater good, not knowing – as the viewer cannot help but know – that the black driver has been victimized from the start. And so it is necessary to wait for J.J. to discover, and the plot to confirm, what the tone of the film has suggested to us all along. We do not follow the story; it follows us. Michael Boatman, currently a gay mayoral aide on the sitcom Spin City, is an immensely appealing actor, and it is because of this that J.J. is not merely irritating. (Not to mention unbelievable. A black man in 1990s Los Angeles who joins the police force and is surprised by the racism he encounters?) One reacts to Boatman’s J.J. as to a good friend who is clueless on a particular issue. But Boatman’s performance is not enough to make The Glass Shield compelling.

Burnett managed a bit more dramatic power in Nightjohn, released late in 1996. Set in the antebellum South, this is the story of Sarny (Allison Jones), a twelve-year-old slave on the plantation of Clel Waller (Beau Bridges). Chiefly, it concerns Sarny’s relationship with John (Carl Lumbly, the older son in To Sleep with Anger) – a black man who has escaped slavery but has decided to become a slave again for the sake of teaching to read the other slaves he encounters. As with The Glass Shield, the message here – that literacy equals power for black people – is a worthy one, and the fact that the film was released in the middle of the recent Ebonics debate is, to say the least, interesting. But the message is hardly new, and in delivering it Burnett, maybe for the first time, stumbles into cliche: the conflict between the young, headstrong slave who wants freedom for himself and others, and the older one who warns that all this freedom talk will just get somebody killed.

Still, there is some of the old Burnett magic at work here. Clel Waller discovers that someone has forged passes to help two slaves escape; then a Bible, thought to have been merely misplaced, turns up in the slaves’ quarters. Waller reasons that whichever slave stole the Bible must be able to read and must therefore have forged the passes. The slave must be whipped as an example, and when Waller finds who he thinks is the guilty party, he gives the disciplinary assignment to his son, a young man not as progressive as he believes himself to be. When the son hesitates with the whip, the accused slave (Lorraine Toussaint) analyzes the reason why: he is torn, she says, between not wanting to displease his father and not wanting to end up like him. Hearing this, Clel Waller tells his son, “She’s readin’ you pretty good, boy.” There, from the mouth of this trader and mutilator of human beings, comes the sharp, Burnett-style observation: that, as important as literacy is, intelligence should not be measured solely by the ability to interpret words on paper, that there are many ways of analyzing what is in front of us, many ways of ‘reading.’

It is this kind of quietly powerful insight that is Charles Burnett’s real strength – not the brand of halfway-thought-out hollering best left to others (Oliver Stone and Spike Lee come to mind). Or, if it is the bold message that Burnett is now bent on sending, one hopes that he will continue to bolster it with the small, perfect moments that characterize his best work.


Hong Kong Film Festival Still Surprises

Posted by admin on May 6, 2014 in Uncategorized |

hkffAlthough the Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) is a noncompetitive event, it is more than a “Best of” World Cinema. This year, the 21st HKIFF (March 25 – April 9) packed an array of fourteen programs, including “Global Images” (new international cinema), director tributes and “Archival Treasures,” which included Louis Feuillade’s ten-episode serial, Les Vampires – all 457 minutes of it!

Since this is 1997 – with the July 1 ‘handover’ of Hong Kong imminent – it was an opportunity to reassess both the past and likely future of HK cinema itself. This was achieved by a three-day international conference (April 10-12) following the HKIFF’s retrospective programme of forty-five HK films, key works between 1947 and 1994, titled “Fifty Years of Electric Shadows.”

For nearly fifty years, Hong Kong has been one of the most productive film centers on earth – alongside Japan, India, and the U.S. – without subsidy. In 1954, for example, with a population then of around three million, HK produced more than 200 features, some in minority dialects but mostly in either Mandarin or Cantonese, the primary ‘competing’ languages. Annual production peaked at just over 300 in the early Sixties. Once seen, some of the more luminous stars of the period are not easily forgotten – Bai Guang (a classic ‘noir’ bad girl), Tzi Lo-lin, Li Lihua, Lin Dai, and Betty Le Di, among other female superstars. Like Ida Lupino in Hollywood, Bai Guang and Tzi Lo-lin were those rarities in the Fifties – women directors of commercial films.

The HKIFF’s “retrospectives” continue to flesh out the story of Hong Kong’s film heritage. Where else can you see the childstar Bruce Lee suddenly pop up in Fifties’ Cantonese melodramas – a career rarely discussed sufficiently in Lee’s ‘biographies’?

As a reminder that there is more to HK cinema than the fan-pieces available on the Internet, one of the festival’s best films – Asian or otherwise – was Wild Wild Rose (1960), a superb film noir, loosely based on the Carmen theme. Set largely in and around Wanchai night clubs, the film is from an era – up to the mid Sixties – when female stars dominated HK films. Few performances in memory, Garbo and Monroe included, match the onscreen electricity of Grace Chang here in the title role. Wild Wild Rose was directed by Wang Tianlin, the father of Wong Jing, a prolific filmmaker in HK today.

Generational lines were further evident in Li Hanxiang’s The Enchanting Shadow (1960), later ‘remade’ by Tsui Hark as A Chinese Ghost Story, just as John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow is termed a ‘remake’ of Lung Kong’s Story of a Discharged Prisoner (1967). Mr Lung returned from the U.S. (where he occasionally works as an actor) to introduce his Hiroshima 28 (1974), an effective drama that passionately denounces nuclear weapons.

Thanks to the festival and to the recent establishment of the Hong Kong Film Archive, filmmakers are increasingly aware of their own precious heritage. Peter Chan’s Comrades: Almost a Love Story (screened at the festival) cleaned up at the Annual HK Film Awards (April 13) with nine wins, including Best Screenplay (Ivy Ho), Best Director (Chan), Best Film, and Best Actress (Maggie Cheung). It looks back a tad to the weepies and melodramas of the Fifties and Sixties, although Comrades is an Eighties/Nineties romance between two emigrant mainlanders, beautifully written, with perhaps a nod to An Affair to Remember.

Chan’s film complemented a delightful homage to HK actress, Maggie Cheung. French director Olivier Assayas’s entry, Irma Vep (1996), concerns a Hong Kong actress named Maggie Cheung (Maggie Cheung), who comes to Paris to star in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires for a slightly mad and paranoid director (Jean-Pierre Leaud, looking uncannily like Francois Truffaut).

Today, in spite of industry fears about censorship from Beijing, falling local attendance, or the current brain drain to Hollywood, the miracle that is HK cinema will not cease on July 1. Indeed, the reopening of the mainland market (mostly shut since the early Fifties) should revive it, albeit gradually. There remains a cultural as well as administrative border between the new Hong Kong and China, explains television executive, Jermyn Lynn: “One of the biggest differences preventing China and HK from cooperating more together in TV and movies is that in China the order of interest is to educate, to inform and then entertain. In HK it is just the reverse.”

The Hong Kong Film Archive has finally been established to retrieve, preserve, and repair the local film heritage. The Archive continually rediscovers old films and has just purchased some 500 old prints from a theatre in San Francisco where the climate is kinder to film – long decimated by humidity, poor storage, and cultural apathy in HK itself.

The conference looked to the future beyond 1997 with only a touch of anxiety. On censorship, one speaker worried about the inconsistency of mainland policies. “For example,” said one, “If statistics show there are too many divorces, they may suddenly start cutting extramarital scenes!” Direct censorship from Beijing will continue to be applied only to co-productions in which the mainland has a financial stake – such as the long-awaited The Soong Sisters that opened in HK on May 1 after more than a year on the shelf. Filmmakers hoped that Beijing will rethink its current policy of ‘one-only versions,’ whether coproductions are shown in China or in foreign markets. (A full version of the original Soong script has been published and is widely on sale in Hong Kong.)

There were also winning contemporary films from elsewhere in Asia such as the hilarious Signal Left, Turn Right, directed by China’s Huang Jianxin. Literally a road movie (set in a part-time driving course run by the police), it cleverly reflects today’s changing China with five imperfect students seeking driver’s licenses for various reasons. There were the Taiwanese films with their trademark longshots (perhaps an economy measure), the most interesting of which was Tsai Ming-liang’s The River, apparently the third in a series about a family who talk to each other less and less as the series progresses. Initially very funny, the long takes begin to wear you down.

But the feature of this year’s HKIFF remains its panoramic view of HK film culture throughout half a century – an identity it can carry proudly into the future.